My son has an amazing memory. When he hears the Talking Heads song “This Must Be the Place,” he tells his Toy Story guys about how this was his favorite song as a baby, and how Daddy used to hold him and dance around the house to calm his crying. He once slept in a crib that went where his bed is now, and he remembers nights of crying for Mommy and Daddy. It’s uncanny, really, hearing him talk of himself as a baby he’s often spot-on. Does he really remember his infant days? Unlikely. But he definitely remember the stories we tell about his childhood.
Felix, like most kids, loves a good tale, especially if it’s about him. (Toddlers and their egos, right?) He also enjoys hearing about Mommy and Daddy’s life before he was born, a glorious, carefree period when his parents traveled the world, dined out, saw movies, and stayed up to all hours. He’s curious about traveling with us someday soon, because he’s heard about how fun it can be to visit another country. (He also wants to stay up late with us, but that’s another story.)
A piece in The New York Times this past Sunday, “The Family Stories That Bind Us,” spoke to the power of storytelling as a fundamental way that children form their identity. I’ve written about the author, Bruce Feiler, before, in a piece about his book The Secrets of Happy Families. Feiler’s article in the Times focused on one secret in particular: having a strong family story, a story (perhaps stories would be more precise) about the people who came before you and your child, an intergenerational history.
Turns out that knowing your family’s narrative benefits your esteem and confidence. A pair of psychologists developed an assessment to determine how well a group of children knew their family history. They found that kids who scored highest on the test handled stress and challenges better than those who did not. The kids who knew their history had a solid sense of self, and their families tended to function well too. Storytelling has benefits beyond entertainment, which explains why humans have been telling stories for as long as we know. It’s one of the elements that makes us human, I think.
On Sunday I also heard an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday with Charles Fernyhough, discussing his new book Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory. He talked about how our earliest memories are often in the third-person, meaning that we can see ourselves, out of body, as it were. Why? Because our minds have done something to the memory, reprocessing it somehow, so while the event may have actually happened, our recollection may not be fully accurate. Memory, like everything, changes over time. As we age, we revisit and review old experiences, and this affects the memory itself. In a way, memory may be similar to a story that we’re constantly editing, revising, perhaps even re-staging, like a new version of an old play.
Fernyhough discussed how couples in a relationship tend to view their history in the same way; they tell the same tale about how they met and fell in love. But if a couple breaks up, often the story changes one person remembers parts of it differently than the other.
This sounds a lot like what Feiler’s talking about with family narratives. We transmit memory through story. We may even conceive of memory as a story, with ourselves as a character. Having a shared story, a shared collection of memories, is a powerful unifying force between people whether those stories be ones we tell as a nation, an ethnic group, a workforce, or a family.
Do you tell stories in your family? And if so, what are your stories about? My wife and I are natural storytellers. Over dinner, and while preparing the meal, we tell stories about our day, the things we’ve read, the news we’ve heard. When Felix asks questions, we explain natural phenomenon through stories. The cycle of a caterpillar to a butterfly, for example, is a story, and so is the formation of a star in space. Any series of events that unfold over time can be woven into a narrative with characters, setting, and conflict. These stories tell of people, things, events, and also of emotions. They are ways for your child to understand the world, the family, and, ultimately, him or herself.
So it’s no surprise that Felix has such an excellent memory. When he asks what he was like as a baby, or when he finds an old toy at the bottom of a bin, we launch into tales that help explain him to himself. He’s begun telling us stories now, too. And so it will go, till he’s old enough to dictate entirely the terms of his past, to author his own history. At which point, my wife and I will have faded into characters in his narrative. And so goes the passage of time.